Our 'Infantry Pearl Harbour' - The New Indian Express

Our 'Infantry Pearl Harbour'

Published: 30th March 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 30th March 2014 01:30 AM

Critics have rounded on Neville Maxwell’s account of the war with China (India’s China War) as being too sympathetic to the Chinese. Yet, in the preface to the 1997 edition (Nataraj Publishers), Maxwell openly acknowledges the opposite: “One unavoidable imbalance in the book derives from the fact that my access to information has been immensely freer on one side of the dispute than on the other.” In another instance, he says “in the section dealing with the border war and its preliminaries …I have drawn on material from unpublished files and reports of the Government of India and the Indian Army. I was given access to those by officials and officers who believed it was time a full account was put together, and who trusted me to write it fairly.”

Maxwell’s tale, as he puts it, is that of a journalist who has an advantage over a scholar “coming later to the trial, when the evidence lies in paper only, and the smiles and frowns, the tones of injury or pride, the unregistered asides, have been forgotten”. It makes for depressing reading as the narrative hurtles inexorably towards comprehensive and punitive military rout—an “infantry Pearl Harbour”. Maxwell has been well briefed by his unnamed whistle-blowers, so well nourished must have been their dismay at the state of affairs; there must have been an army of them, so rich is the detailing. By playing favourites in the army, Nehru was by 1962, says Maxwell, “no longer dealing with professionals but with courtiers. So, when he sought professional decisions, he heard only what his military advisers believed he wished to hear—and with his assurances that China would not ‘do anything big’ he gave them the political guidance they hoped for”. It was a “process of mutual delusion”. As the IB chief gazed into his “crystal ball” troops are deployed (in NEFA) “not in the light of an overall defence plan but according to IB’s estimates of where the Chinese were likely to move”; we have a general (of IV Corps) “with maps strewn over his bed and telephones handy” issue detailed orders not from the corps headquarters in Tezpur or the battlefront, but from his bedroom in far Delhi; and a shaken defence minister who when asked by journalists where he thought the advancing Chinese could be stopped, says, “The way they are going, there is not any limit to where they will go.” Nehru then sacrifices his defence minister for his own survival.

Churchill lost the election after emerging victorious in the Great War but Nehru survived, for 18 months, after he led this nation to a stupid defeat. Afterwards it was business as usual. Maxwell says, “By and large, the official explanations for the debacle were accepted, the blame put on the Chinese rather than the Indian government or military leadership. It was suggested the Chinese had won because they had fought in overwhelming numbers, without regard for casualties and took the defenders often by surprise. Much was made of the climactic and logistical difficulties that faced the Indian troops, few asking why unprepared, they had been made to engage the Chinese in circumstances so adverse.”

I am no China expert; neither am I a defence expert; but this much is clear, Maxwell’s book is not Chinese propaganda—it is a fine piece of journalism. What was our leadership thinking? Fifty-two years later, have things changed? More next week.

Sudarshan is most recently author of Adrift


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